FOOD- THE DISH- Caliente! A Mexican marathoner finds Carlton Road

Eight months ago, El Tepeyac, the three-year-old Mexican restaurant on Carlton Road, quietly changed its name to Aqui es Mexico, aka "Here is Mexico." And as Dish and others have noticed, it has slowly become one of the most talked-about Mexican restaurants in town. While the little 49-seat space has always been known for its authentic Mexican cuisine and as a meeting place for Charlottesville's growing Mexican population, we were curious about its growing reputation under its new name. What had changed to make us Gringos take notice?

The answer: new owner Jose Patino, who took over the restaurant from his daughter earlier this year. According to Patino, El Tepeyac had turned into more of a cantina, so he changed the name, limited the alcohol, and began making the space more family friendly. He also brought with him over 25 years of experience as a chef, and a profound sense of his Mexican roots.

Pantino, 64, who grew up in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, about 130 miles west-northwest of Mexico City, went to Chicago in 1970 and opened his first restaurant there in 1978. He named his restaurant Taximaroa, after the Tarascan Indian village that had been the site of his hometown. 

He and his family (he's been married 45 years and has 12 grandchildren!) moved to Charlottesville in the mid-'90s when he took a job at the Omni. He later worked for the Boar's Head Inn, and also opened up the Mexican grocery store El Paso on the corner of East Market Street and Meade. Now executive chef at The Colonnades, he no longer owns the store. 

Patino says that 10 years ago when there were few Mexican restaurants in town, his store customers kept telling him he should open one. Eventually, he convinced his daughter to come to Charlottesville and open El Tepeyac.

Pantino says he got his passion for cooking from his mother, whom he used to help make tortillas when he was a boy. Because his mother died when Patino was 15, he feels a special connection with her in the kitchen. "Those beginnings with my mother, those early memories of cooking with her, are the 'salt and pepper' in my food," he says.

Patino says he wants to expand the restaurant, either by taking over the space next door or opening up another location in town– he hasn't decided which. In the meantime, he hopes the food will speak for itself. And if Dish had any doubts about Pantino's energy to go the distance, they quickly faded when he showed us some of the last pages in an old scrapbook, when in 1995, as a 53-year old, he ran the Boston Marathon in a little over three hours.

"My dream when I came to this country was to be a chef," says Pantino, "and that dream I did. Now my dream is to grow my restaurant for my family."


One good turn...

In the restaurant world– and the real world, too– no good deed should go unnoticed. Last month, Fuel Co. chef Tim Hockett's good deed not only got noticed, it made the Washington Post! Lana Nelson of Annapolis wrote to Post food critic Tom Sietsema's popular Ask Tom column, where readers ask questions and offer tips about the dining scene, and Sietsema took time to quote her on Hockett's willingness to share recipes.  

When Nelson asked for Fuel Co.'s melon gazpacho recipe, she received three e-mails from Tim Hockett in reply. 

"Not only did he graciously provide the recipe," Nelson told Sietsema, "he also reduced the proportions, advised on the size and the sweetness of the tomatoes, and recommended a handy melon tool. He followed up with friendly good wishes and a request to let him know the outcome." 

A round of applause, please, for chef Hockett!


Build a house... then eat it!

Why not take a break from shopping this Saturday, December 9 and get your hands dirty– or should we say sweet and sticky?– at the Seasonal Cook's gingerbread house-decorating workshop. For $25, you and your kids can create a fabulous gingerbread house to take home for the holidays. 

Pastry chef Jason McKown, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in baking and pastry arts, bakes the ready-made pieces and coaches revelers through the decorating process. The 90-minute-long workshop is offered three times during the day, at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. Contact the Seasonal Cook in the Main Street Market for details.


BBQ & Bloggin'

Looking for some honest barbecue commentary? Louisa BBQ champ John Atkins, whose Pigs on the Run barbecue team recently captured a fifth-place finish at the World BBQ Championships, has launched a new barbecue blog, The Pigs on the Run Barbecue Blog: Anything and Everything About Barbecue (pigsontherunbbq.blogspot.com)... and the name says it all. Recipes, commentary, and yes... reviews of some local BBQ joints, including Pee Wee's Pit, the Acme Smokehouse and BBQ Company on Route 29 North, and George Spry's BBQ at his store at Hickory Hill a little further up the road.  


Aqui es Mexico's Jose Patino, cook Raqual Vasquez, and Patino's daughter, Anna Perez, bring authentic Mexican cuisine to Carlton Road.

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